Why Bad Habits Are So Good
One of the more regular conversations that I have with people is about their swim technique (shocker, I know). Most people realize quickly that swimming involves a large percentage of technique in order to be successful. So newer swimmers reach out to me in hopes of getting a good stroke right from the start, so that they can avoid any bad habits and focus on the training aspect of swimming. Weekly stroke lessons are often requested. That’s when I push back.
Not because I don’t want to help or I don’t want their money, but rather because I know it won’t really help. The problem is that they have no frame of reference. So if I move their elbow up 2 inches during the pull, they can’t feel the difference or even notice it, which makes it really difficult to repeat. It’s just as foreign as the current stroke that they are not doing (ha!). So my answer is for them to get in the pool and work on it by swimming lots.
Swimming ‘lots’ achieves two things. First, it creates habits (also sometimes referred to as ‘grooving the muscle’). And a habit, good or bad is something that can be recognized. (just like you recognize that you shouldn’t bite your nails, smoke, do heroin, date fast women, etc) That then makes it easier to recognize a change to that habit. It’s usually a successful session if I hear “That feels different” or “That feels weird”.
The second thing that swimming ‘lots’ achieves is fitness. And fitness, specific fitness, is often the biggest challenge of good form. I often ask people who complain about their swim technique if they can swim just 1 length with great form. If the answer is yes, then the problem is fitness, not technique. The correct motion is one thing, having those specific muscles fit enough to continue that form is quite another.
So by doing this, in essence, I’m encouraging bad habits to be formed. And that allows changes to be made and remembered.
The whole process is not unlike golf. Years ago I bought a set of clubs with the intention of learning to play golf (until I discovered how boring it is without copious amounts of beer and cigars). So I signed up for a number of lessons with a golf pro. Each hour session he would take me from an absolutely abysmal golfer, to a guy with a fairly decent swing. At the end of each hour he would tell me to hit the range at least 3 times the next week to practice the swing before the next session. I would then proceed to hit a grand total of zero golf balls. When I returned the following week I had learned absolutely nothing. I was basically Groundhog Day at the range. I would start over from scratch.
This is also one of the reasons that learning to swim at such a young age is such an advantage. I watched my own kiddos learn to swim, and they didn’t try and analyze every lap. They jumped in and did some drill like it was a game. Mindless, non analytical repetition. They would then move to the next drill and the next. Then the coaches would circle back to the original drill after days of it and refine it just a little. Then a little more. By the end of a dedicated summer, the kids were solid little freestylers and knew the other strokes.
As adults, we don’t have the time or patience for this type of thing, and so in the big picture it actually hurts our progress. Remember the Karate Kid? Same basic premise. Wash the cars, Wax the cars, Paint the fence. and when you’ve developed those basics movement and habits, it’s time to refine them. and beat the Cobra Kai. So before you pick up the next swim book or watch the next YouTube video, make sure you’ve put in enough pool time to truly develop some horrendous habits. If you have, then head over to the dojo and refine those skills. Cause that’s the only way you’re gonna beat Johnny.